The sun shines warmly on a south-facing slope and a refreshing zephyr rustles the marsh grass of Henson’s Cove and cools those standing on an expanse of recently cleared acreage.
Bob Prescott is almost hopping from foot to foot in excitement as he animatedly talks up all the reasons why the spot would make an ideal place to raise a family.
“When you look around Orleans or any other town, you don’t have this,” he said, grinning widely.
The difference from years past is startling; a bulkhead of densely packed trees and almost impenetrable understory has been removed, revealing the soft blue beauty of the salty cove.
“When they looked up last year, they would have just seen this big green wall,” Prescott said of the view from the water. The clearing and the black anti-erosion fencing that remain on the five-acre property acts as an invitation.
“This is a big sign for terrapins, “Nest here!” said Prescott, director of Massachusetts Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. He added with emphasis: “This is turtle heaven.”
As if on cue, three tiny harlequin striped heads pop up in the cove behind Prescott. The threatened reptiles seem to be interested in the inviting expanse of heated, silty, earth.
Diamondbacks most endangered
Prescott certainly hopes so; the diamondback terrapins in Pleasant Bay are the most endangered in the state. Without more places to nest, the speedy turtle could disappear from the area where it used to be commonplace.
The precarious status of the turtle is what attracted Seth Wilkinson, of Wilkinson Ecological Design, to the project. He is responsible for taking the site by Henson’s and a site on Cedar Cove back 70 years to a habitat that beckons the cold-blooded creatures.
“This is the last chance to save the terrapin in Pleasant Bay,” Wilkinson says.
The population, which had its heyday from the 1890s to the 1930s, was hit hard during the Great Depression when people went out “turtle-thunking,” said Prescott. Folks would take long sticks and thwack them on the marsh to find the bromating, or hibernating, turtles.
They were paid $3 a turtle for terrapins, which means good eating. (Prescott points out all the recipes called for port, not only to cook with but to serve alongside, so he questions the culinary draw.)
But danger to the protected population nowadays is the homogenization of the peninsula. Unlike in the past where there were open fields and clear views to the water, the Cape has grown up. Mature habitats, with older trees and thick undergrowth, often with invasive species, are the norm now. That’s what Wilkinson battled against on the conservation properties that have been transformed into potential terrapin meccas.
“It was unbelievable how bad it was,” said Wilkinson. “There were two native shrubs in about four acres.”
The battle wasn’t only against the landscape.
Some neighbors appealed the unanimous decision of the conservation commission. Among other concerns, they thought a few property owners were only in it for a better view. They also didn’t want the character of the place altered.
“People think it is nice woodland, but there is really nothing nice about it,” Prescott said, speaking of the invasives and lack of habitat diversity.
The idea that clear cutting was being allowed along the water, a practice that generates fines if done illegally, also raised eyebrows. But, Wilkinson explained, a number of criteria had to be met before the project was signed off.
Still, the Wetlands Protection Act wasn’t written to foster the imperative habitat restoration projects that are needed today, he added.
Wilkinson, a baseball hat pulled low on his head, is a turtle fan, but the projects are much bigger than a single species. The transformation back to an early successional habitat, think of children just starting out, helps a whole host of species that are struggling on the Cape. Wilkinson ticks a number of them off: box turtles, New England cottontails, bluebirds, swallows, field sparrows, the list goes on.
Funding saves nesting spots
It wasn’t all that long ago that Wilkinson was picking strawberries and wild asparagus in wide open fields. He was driving by one of those old haunts with his mom recently and he had to ask if that was the place he enjoyed as a kid; it was.
“Twenty-five years later … there are 45-foot black locust there,” Wilkinson said.
The open field and heath habitat regime is so needed that the state and federal government funded the bulk of both projects with $175,000 under the Landowner Incentive Program.
Neighbors, working through the Orleans Conservation Trust, which either owns or holds a conservation restriction on the properties, took care of the rest.
“Turtles were a high priority for the state,” said Prescott, who was looking at a much smaller clearing on Cedar Cove. “This is the first (project) of its kind.”
Prescott and Wilkinson, who both belong to the Trust, are optimistic about the cleared shorelines along both coves. Because of private ownership and other concerns, the two spots are among the only potential nesting spots left in the area. The two coves are also traditional terrapin hot spots and are still prime feeding areas for the charismatic reptile.
Next door to Henson’s Cove, in Lucy’s Cove, a few terrapins nest in yards and along dirt roads, not unlike the situation on Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet, where a concerted educational effort has made for a happy coexistence between terrapins and residents.
“They don’t seem to mind neighborhoods and yards,” Prescott said.
Prescott is hoping to create “turtle gardens,” or turtle-friendly places on private property, in Orleans as well. Similar efforts in Eastham have boosted terrapin nests from five to 105 in just five years.
With an eye toward the future, Prescott looks out at The River near Cedar Cove. The marsh grass will make an ideal nursing area for the hatchlings that will spend five years of their life eating under cover.
The recent burn has blackened the dirt making it as alluring as bright white sand to discerning turtle eyes.
“A turtle swimming by sees this black surface and comes up to investigate and she’ll wander a bit,” Prescott says as he walks around the site, and then he stops up short with a slight laugh.
“Here we are trying to interpret what her tiny little brain is thinking.”
Contributing writer Doreen Leggett can be reached at 508-887-3224 or firstname.lastname@example.org.